Joker film review: Ghastly. Daring. Unexpected. A genuinely disturbing tale

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, which hits UK cinemas from Friday (Oct 4). Picture: Warner Brothers.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, which hits UK cinemas from Friday (Oct 4). Picture: Warner Brothers. - Credit: Archant

This standalone take on comic books’ most compelling character is daring, thrilling, unexpected, ghastly and probably the last thing the world needs right now. Well, it’s another bloody origins tale, isn’t it?

Unlike his nemesis, doomed to be repeatedly orphaned as a child outside that cinema, the Joker is a character of no fixed lineage. Here he is an Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who works as a clown and suffers from a condition that means that he laughs at inopportune moments. He isn't any kind of supervillain but in an early 80s Gotham brought to its knees by a garbage collection strike his insanity catches an underlying resentment and becomes a catalyst.

Phillips, director of The Hangover trilogy, presents us not with special effects and action, but a grimy character study. The decision to shoot this with Imax cameras is perverse but inspired; it looks fantastic on the big screen and is the best use of the expanded screen format since Dunkirk.

The funniest idea in the film is De Niro, notoriously an interviewer's nightmare, being cast as a chat show host. He has though lightened up in recent years and here is such a good sport that he is prepared to sit there and watch Phoenix do two of his greatest performances - Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Rupert Pupkin from King of Comedy - right back at him with a ferocity that makes his creations seem almost quaint.

While De Niro's character is the embodiment of lazy showbiz complacency, Phoenix throws himself into his role with Method intensity, doing the kind of extreme body transformations De Niro was once known for. Instead of gaining the pounds, he shed them to an alarming, skeletal degree.

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(It is in stark contrast to Phoenix's podgy Jesus in Mary Magdalene. His commitment to that role was sucking his stomach in for the crucifixion.)

The film is genuinely disturbing in the way it taps into contemporary faultlines. There is a queasy, nagging sense that maybe they shouldn't be doing this, that perhaps the filmmakers haven't fully thought it through. This Joker is so depraved he warms up listening to a Gary Glitter tune. This was the year that a comic book movie became the biggest moneyspinner ever, but nothing says 2019 quite like a superhero film with no hero.

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